What is CITES? And a CITES 2016 Convention Summary

Guest Post by Amy Gornall
44 years ago today CITES was established, and in 2013 the UN proclaimed the 3rd of March ‘World Wildlife Day’ to mark this occasion. On this day, the UN and other organisations celebrate & raise awareness of our wild plants and animals, so spread the word!
What is CITES?
CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora (quite a mouthful!) It is part of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and is essentially an agreement between many governments set up with the aim to regulate internationally traded plants and animals, ensuring their welfare.

When Was it Started?
Established in Washington D.C in 1973, there are currently 183 States/Countries involved who have voluntarily agreed to join the convention, which they do so by writing a formal declaration. Once they’ve joined they are referred to as ‘Parties’. Once the declaration is processed, CITES is enforced in that Party - this is legally binding but doesn’t replace national laws.
 CITES 1975
CITES 1975
How Does it Work?
The international trade of plant and animal species ranges from live animals to wildlife products (such as leather goods and wooden instruments) and it’s thought to be worth billions of dollars every year. CITES regulates this wildlife trade with the aim of preventing over-exploitation of these species. They do this by putting control measures in place and enforcing these measures across borders between different countries. Because of this, cooperation on an international scale is vital to its success.

Wildlife species protected by CITES are divided into three categories which are regulated in different ways - Appendix I, II and III; Which group they fall into depends on their vulnerability and they can be moved from one category to another if circumstances change.
Appendix I - Species threatened with extinction - the trade of species in this category is only allowed in exceptional circumstances
Appendix II - Species that are not threatened with extinction but must have controlled trade to ensure their long term survival
Appendix III - Species in this category are protected in at least one country (that has asked other members of CITES for help with controlling the trade)

CITES Conferences
A CITES Conference of Parties (CoP) is held every 2-3 years to:
  • Review progress made in the conservation of internationally traded species
  • Amend species in the appendices eg. Move to different appendices or add completely new species
  • Reflect on reports submitted by Parties and other groups
  • Discuss ways in which to improve the efficiency of the convention itself
In 2016, the 17th conference was held in South Africa. Ms. Bomo Edna Molewa, the Minister of Environmental affairs in South Africa, began the 17th conference stating that it was an ‘important opportunity to implement and strengthen policies to protect species and ecosystems’. 

This was arguably one of the most successful CITES conferences to date, as many important issues surrounding wildlife trade were addressed that had not been addressed before. Here’s a few highlights of the decisions made at CoP17:

Ivory Trade
 © Xu Chao / WWF-China, click image for original article
© Xu Chao / WWF-China, click image for original article

International ivory trade was banned in 1989, however domestic trade (trading of ivory within the boundaries of a country) has remained legal. A proposal to close domestic ivory markets was discussed and agreed to by most members of CITES, as it is widely recognized that these legal markets provide a cover for illegal poaching. 

This agreement isn’t legally binding, but markets contributing poaching or illegal trade will now be encouraged to close. Japan argued that their domestic market doesn’t contribute to poaching, so they do not need to close it in their country. This is questionable because it’s challenging to regulate whether traded ivory is legal or not - as you can’t tell it’s age simply by looking at it. DNA analysis is needed to find out if ivory is pre-1975 (and therefore legal).
Namibia and Zimbabwe submitted proposals to reopen international ivory trade. These proposals were thankfully rejected, as it would have potentially proven a step backwards in our efforts to conserve elephants.

On a positive note however, China expressed their strong desire for the closure of all currently legal ivory markets. As one of the biggest markets of illegal ivory this was a fantastic development and hopefully indicates a more stable future for the African elephant.

Swaziland proposed to change the existing regulations for the white rhino to enable ‘limited and regulated trade in white rhino horn’. Their argument was that the money raised by selling the rhino horn could be used to help fund the protection of the rhinos themselves - this was rejected.

 Photo by Valerius Tygart, creative commons liscense
Photo by Valerius Tygart, creative commons liscense

It was decided that all Pangolin species are to be placed in Appendix I, the highest category of protection. Pangolin populations have been drastically declining to due the high demand for their meat as a delicacy and scales for traditional medicines. This is a significant victory for pangolins and will be a great benefit to help save this species.

It was also agreed that the global trade of African Grey parrots should be banned, moving the species from Appendix II to Appendix I. This ban will make it much easier for law enforcement to ‘crack down’ on illegal poachers and smugglers and allow the wild populations to recover. The critically endangered helmeted hornbill was also thrown a lifeline at the conference, with Parties calling for stricter enforcement against the illegal poaching of the hornbill’s ‘red ivory’.
 An object carved from hornbill ivory. Public domain, Walters Art Museum
An object carved from hornbill ivory. Public domain, Walters Art Museum
The Trump Effect: What does his presidency mean for CITES?
The US is currently the biggest financial contributor to the UN, and so by extension the biggest contributor to CITES. Former president Obama had no reason to doubt climate change and did a lot to ensure the protection of wildlife and natural habitats. However, the newly appointed President Donald Trump has previously expressed his opinion that climate change is a hoax, is seen to be very pro fossil fuels and has appointed the anti-environmental Scott Pruitt as administrator of the EPA.

All of this raises serious concerns about what a Trump presidency means for the future of wildlife.  It is worrying that Trump is planning on signing an executive order that would reduce the voluntary contribution of the US to the UN and other international bodies by 40%. If this was to go ahead it would be a massive blow to funding, as the US provides around a quarter of the United Nation’s total revenues. 

Fighting for the protection of nature on an international scale is needed now more than ever if we’re to oppose these plans that disregard the welfare of wildlife.
 Infographic credit Wildlife Conservation Society, click for original article
Infographic credit Wildlife Conservation Society, click for original article
Amy Gornall is a Manchester based science uni graduate and an aspiring wildlife conservationist. She also draws and paints in her spare time. You can visit Amy's art blog and shop to see her work. 


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